On Divorce

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | October 3, 2021

Mark 10:2-16

It has been said that people want biblical preaching that can be applied to everyday life. That being the case, according to the bible –

You are not allowed to wear polyester clothing; because that’s a blend and it’s against the rules to wear mixed fabrics.

You should carefully check any fruit that you eat, because it’s against the rules to eat fruit from a tree that’s less than three years old.

No surf and turf, because shellfish is against the rules.

No more BLT’s because bacon is off the list. As is rabbit.

Also, you can’t trim your beard or get a bowl haircut. If you’re a man, that is.

If you make an offering to God, make sure to include some salt.

You should plant different crops in the same field and when you harvest you can’t go all the way to the edge of the field.

So there you go, just part of a practical guide for living. Only just not today’s living. The challenge of taking a lesson from the Bible and applying it to our lives involves figuring out the difference between the universal truth and the truth defined by time, place and culture.

Love God and love your neighbor as yourself: universal truth. No tattoos and if you sell land you can’t sell it permanently: a different time and place.

We live in a very different time, place and culture than the one, or ones in the Bible. When I read these stories or teachings, I always try to figure out what the truth is that spans the bridge between then and now.

In today’s reading Jesus was asked to make a judgement about divorce. For a long time, I viewed the subject of divorce from a second-hand perspective. I knew people who had been divorced. Then I went through a divorce.

Those were tough times. Getting a divorce is at the same time a “join the crowd” experience and a uniquely lonely experience. Feelings are raw and tender. One feels exposed and vulnerable.

As a church minister I felt especially exposed. Folks in church reacted in fairly predictable ways. A few people were very supportive. Most people were silent on the subject; it was my business and not theirs, or they were simply indifferent. A few people reacted as though my divorce were a moral failure – and as is often the case with folks who feel that way, they need to tell you about it – and they left the church. 

All in all, I came through the experience in fairly good shape. Somewhat older and wiser for it; the wisdom that comes through wounds that have been given time to become healed battle scars. And if friends or family tell me they are embarking on that painful journey, all I can offer, which is perhaps the best that anyone can offer, is to say, “I understand. I’ve been there.”

After my personal experience, what Jesus had to say on the subject seemed especially relevant. The challenge as always, is how to apply it to life in our time.

Throughout history there have been efforts to enforce “normalcy” by social design, religious persecution or political power. The people with power are the ones who define what is acceptable, officially at least. Whether it is political, religious or social, when it comes to engineering human beings into what passes for “normal,” the end result tends to be the same – violence and death.

“The bible says…” Indeed, the bible says a lot of things. Much of the time when we talk about texts or stories from the bible it is a fairly simple and straightforward matter. We hear the basics such as, “Love your neighbor” and though it might be a challenge at time to do that, we know that it is at least possible.

Sometimes we talk about texts or stories from the bible and it is not so simple and straightforward. We need to ask more questions, dig a little deeper and explore the meanings of original languages and context. Then we begin to see that what’s on the surface, what can be referred to as the “clear teaching of scripture” is more like the tip of the iceberg. The truth we see is but one small part of the whole truth. 

When Jesus was asked to share his views on divorce, it was not a straightforward question; it was a trap. The scene is set with the introduction, “He left that place and went to the region of Judea and* beyond the Jordan.” He was in the territory ruled by Herod Antipas had recently divorced his wife Aretus in order to marry his brother’s wife Herodias.

John the Baptist had said publicly that Herod and Herodias were committing adultery. For voicing his opinion, John was thrown in prison and his head was chopped off. The opponents of Jesus assumed that If Jesus could be drawn into making a similar statement, then he too could be arrested.

Some Pharisees wanted to know if Jesus thought it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife. They didn’t ask if divorce itself was lawful or if a woman should divorce her husband.  The law didn’t allow women to divorce their husbands. Only a man could initiate a divorce.

There were two schools of thought on divorce. One line of thinking held to a strict view of the law and that the only reason a man could divorce his wife was on the grounds of adultery. We tend to define adultery as one spouse having sex with someone other than his or her spouse.

That’s not how the ancients viewed it. If a married man wanted to have sex with someone other than his wife, he was not committing adultery. If one man had sex with another man’s wife, he was not committing adultery. It was the woman who was committing adultery against her husband. A husband could divorce adulterous wife and the man with whom she committed adultery could be made to pay a fine, which would go to the aggrieved husband as compensation for his lost “property.

That was what we might call the strict conservative view on divorce – Only for “adultery.” The majority of people held to a more open and liberal interpretation of divorce. Still, women were not allowed to divorce their husbands, but in the more liberal view a man could divorce his wife for any reason that suited him.

This was the law. A divorced woman had no rights. If she was fortunate, she might have relatives who would take her in. There might even be somebody willing to take her on as a wife. In any event a divorced woman was used goods. If she were not fortunate, she could either beg or earn what she could as a prostitute.

This is just one area where when I hear people say things such as, “We need to get back to biblical morality and live by the clear teaching of scripture,” I say, “Be careful what you wish for!”

Anyway, the Pharisees wanted Jesus to stick his foot in the trap: Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?

In response he asked them a question – What did Moses say?

Moses said that a man could write a certificate of dismissal and divorce his wife. To which Jesus responded that Moses agreed to that only because of “your” hardness of heart. The term “hardness of heart” was a phrase that meant a blatant and willing rejection of God’s desire. It meant knowing what is true and rejecting truth for falsehood, because falsehood was more convenient or self-serving than truth.

Jesus went on to say, “But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” 7“For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,* 8and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’” 

Male and female – both in God’s image – both of equal standing in the sight of God. No longer two, but one flesh. Do not separate what God has made. Jesus is saying that God’s intent in marriage is love and equality. One person is not the property of another.

By referring to the creation story in Genesis Jesus was lifting up an ideal. His reference does not imply a literal interpretation of the story. His answer to the question the Pharisees asked in their attempt to set a trap for him was to say that divorce as they knew it was an abuse of power and thus unjust.

The wider context of the story is set on his journey to Jerusalem. Whatever he said, his truth didn’t matter to his opponents. Their minds were made up. They were going to kill him anyway.

The ideal that defines us, what we might call the spirit of Christ, will always follow a path of truth that leads to justice, inclusion, and love. If the pursuit of our religion results in those outcomes, then we are on the right path. If not, then we need to re-think our direction. Amen.

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